By TYLER HENRY
Lead Sportswriter - Salina Post
The Ell-Saline Cardinals have spent the whole season listening to people outside of Brookville underestimate them.
When the team finished 6-3 in their inaugural 8-Man campaign the word on the street was that while good, the Cardinals simply weren’t ready to hang with the big boys.
Those words seemed to find more weight when Ell-Saline dropped their season opener 32-6 at the hands of Moundridge, but the rest of this season has proven to everyone, what those inside the locker room already knew.
The Cardinals were built for this moment.
Ell-Saline proved themselves when they took down a pair of perennial powers in Little River and Clifton-Clyde during the regular season.
They proved it again when they decimated another powerhouse in 8-1 Meade 68-20 in the round of 16.
And last week, when many expected their playoff run to meet a familiar end at the hands of Hoxie, the Cardinals found a way to prevail, finishing their revenge tour and punching their ticket to the state semifinals.
“Our togetherness stood out to me in that game and our guys never panicked,” Ell-Saline head coach Joe Roche said. “They picked each other up and we played together for four quarters. Our program needed a win like that at home over an opponent of that caliber, you can’t ask for anything more.”
Going into this week’s contest with Leoti-Wichita, there are once again, a number of valid reasons to doubt Ell-Saline.
The defending state champs enter this semifinal as the #1 team in 8M-DI, still unbeaten, and riding a 24-game win streak that dates back to the start of last season.
The Indians average almost 62 points a night, and nearly ten yards per carry on offense while holding opponents to just eight points per game and pitching seven shutouts on defense.
There have always been reasons to count out the Cardinals, but those reasons have never penetrated the walls of the Ell-Saline locker room, and at a certain point, you make the decision to doubt this team at your own peril.
None of that is to say that this week’s semifinal will be easy.
On the contrary, it will take a masterclass of a game plan, flawless execution for four quarters, and perhaps, even a bit of luck, but if there’s one group that truthfully believes this Goliath can be slain, it might just be the ones sporting the crimson and white this Friday night.
“We look forward to each and every one of these games,” Roche said. “We haven’t always earned opportunities like these in the past but throughout the summer and throughout the season we worked for this and now we have to go out and compete.”
Priority one for Ell-Saline will lie in attempting to stop a Leoti rushing attack led by a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in Wyatt Gardner and Khris Hermosillo.
“Their backs have great vision and if the point of attack isn’t available they’ll bounce it against the grain and find a seam,” he said. “You have to play gap sound and hope that you’re tenacious enough to get off their blocks because they’ve got real size in the trench.”
The keys to slowing the Indian advance on defense, and pushing them back on offense are the same, but as anyone who’s played Leoti will tell you, it’s easier said than done.
“We have to be more violent than they are and we have to try to dictate what they do offensively,” Roche said. “You can’t trick a team this good, the only way to have success is to beat them to the point of attack and match their physicality.”
Fortunately for the Cardinals, their sling on offense is far from empty, and for as good as the Leoti defense has been, they could have their hands full on Friday against a high-powered Ell-Saline offense.
“We have to spread the ball around the way we usually do and force them to defend the whole field both vertically and horizontally,” Roche said. “We’ll also need to be patient with our running game and stay with our blocks until the final whistle.”
It has been said that Ell-Saline football is put together with baling wire and hard work, and come kickoff at 6:00 this Friday night in Leoti, the strength of that wire will be tested the every sense of the word.